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editorial

Funding for T upkeep must not be crowded out by growth plans

Maintenance work was performed on a Blue Line subway car in East Boston on Jan. 7.
Maintenance work was performed on a Blue Line subway car in East Boston on Jan. 7.John Blanding/globe staff

Imagine it’s a hot summer day in 2017, and the state secretary of transportation has to decide between two projects: switch heaters that make it easier to keep trains running on outdoor rails on snowy days, or politically popular new train service to the Convention Center tied to a Boston Olympics bid. Which should she choose?

With the last seven days of delays, cancellations, and commuting misery fresh in mind, most riders today would probably choose maintenance to bring the T back to full reliability. When the snow melts, though, and politicians resume their quests for big expansion programs like so many squirrels reclaiming buried acorns, riders may need to remind them of this week’s frustration. Fixing the current system should top the state’s priority list. Meanwhile, Olympic bid organizers would be wise to align their wish list as much as possible with what the current system needs.

This winter’s problems, after all, have not only frazzled commuters but taken a toll on the local economy, public safety, and even the Patriots parade. Some MBTA trips over the last week have ended in fire, others in ice. Workers couldn’t make it to the office, hurting businesses. In the midst of a storm, just when it’s most important to have public transportation as an alternative to driving on slushy roads, the state instead asked commuters to seek alternative transportation. The agency said it couldn’t put on extra cars to carry fans to the Super Bowl victory parade on Wednesday.

The state is already moving forward with plans to replace aging equipment on the Red Line and Orange Line, which should help. It’s no accident that major problems were clustered on those two lines, which operate older trains than the Blue Line. New trains on those lines would also enhance an Olympic bid.

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But needs won’t always overlap: switch heaters, for instance, offer no benefit to a Summer Olympics. While it would be nice to build everything, state officials have to make trade-offs, and the prospect of an Olympics worries some transit advocates, who fear it will throw the state’s priorities off kilter. As the Globe’s Michael Levenson and Nicole Dungca reported recently, while Olympic organizers say they’re only counting on “planned” T projects, some of those don’t actually have funding, and could come at the expense of more important projects.

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Olympic boosters didn’t invent this problem; pursuing big projects instead of investing in reliability has plenty of history in public transportation. Talking up big dreams helps build public support for transit spending while, as newly installed MassDOT head Stephanie Pollack put it in a recent interview, investments to make the T run more reliably during storms aren’t sexy. There’s a place for expansion, especially in cases like the Green Line extension in Somerville and Medford, where the federal government is picking up much of the cost. But the last week of travel woes reinforces that the region needs to invest in maintenance, too.